The National Begin Their Next Act Brilliantly With ‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’

The National have been so good at producing National songs for so long that it’s been easy to take them for granted. Whenever the  Brooklyn indie-rock institution passed a career point at which a lesser band might start breaking down — albums five, six, seven — they just got stronger, releasing some of their best work well into their second decade. In hindsight, this longevity seems obvious. The hallmarks of a National song — wry, affective lyrics; earthquake-proof song structures; painterly arrangements — seem tailor-built to sound more graceful with age. 

And yet, despite all that, the past few years have shown some cracks in the band’s tastefully constructed facade. Their eighth LP, 2019’s I Am Easy To Find, was their most diffuse, its surplus of songs and collaborators (Sharon Van Etten, Justin Vernon, etc ) making the band sound as if they were straining to operate in their own style, as if gifting “National-style songs” to friends. Side projects beckoned. Singer Matt Berninger released a stately solo album (2020’s Serpentine Prison, and guitarist and producer Aaron Dessner helped Taylor Swift weather quarantine with a pair of enormously successful LPs. 

Their new First Two Pages Of Frankenstein, then, is a remarkable reassertion of the band’s potency: the sound of a third act being forged through the hell of depression and writer’s block. It’s their shortest LP in 15 years, a cycle of patient and often quiet songs, completely stripped of the sharp-angle production flourishes that enlivened their recent LPs. Opener “Once Upon A Poolside” sets a mood, with a simple piano line (and ghostly Sufjan Stevens cameo) accompanying Berninger’s musings about a relationship on the edge. Of course, this being Matt Berninger, the near-breakup turns into a rumination on why the couple got together in the first place. “This is the closest we’ve ever been,” he sings at the breaking point, his baritone showing new wrinkles amidst the music’s magic-hour glow. The pared-down lyrics, written again with his wife and longtime creative partner Carin Besser, sound wrenched from someplace primal, with little of the full-sentence verbosity that defined early records. 

A blanket of sound — strings, oboes, chiming guitars — lays underneath pretty much every track, thickening as the songs reach their climaxes. Dessner’s arrangements have never been more spare, building from delicate guitar figures and upright pianos on tracks like “Ice Machine” or the two Phoebe Bridgers collaborations, both of which treat her voice more like a woodwind instrument than a big-name guest star. Even when drummer Bryan Devendorf — long The National’s muscular heart — finds a mechanical pulse on “Tropic Morning News” and “Grease In Your Hair,” it’s brought to earth by Berninger’s restrained vocals. 


The album takes its title from a serendipitous pull from the bookshelf that helped Berninger unlock the record’s tone after a long period of writer’s block. Frankenstein (the book) begins with the hyper-literate monster afloat somewhere in the arctic, and the National, too, have long specialized in turning interstitial moments into widescreen epics. Early records served as holy texts for millennial ennui, full of professional anxiety and vainglorious nights out, but as the band has returned to each other, again and again over the decades, the songs have increasingly felt like not just products of long term relationships but odes to them. On Frankenstein, that becomes surface text. “Eucalyptus” rejects the terms of a breakup on account of the shared possessions that it would unduly distress. “New Order T-Shirt” flips through cherished visual memories that Berninger keeps with him “like drugs in a pocket.” 

First Two Pages of Frankenstein hits its peak with the dazzling Taylor Swift collab “The Alcott,” a late-night locking of eyes between two old flames. Berningerisms (“I had to do something to break into your golden thinking”) fold over Taylorisms (“Everything that’s mine is a landmine”), the low edge in her voice and breathy asides filling in the edges of the song. There is no doubt, as the song fades, how the night between these two characters ended. Nine albums deep, the National find new energy by conjuring not just a great, suffocating fog but also the far light that guides the way out.